And Now For Something Not Too Completely Different

Up in Blue Yonder (that’s her center in the picture above — she’s kind of hard to miss from the St. Croix South Shore, where this picture was taken), you’re surrounded by Ginger Thomas flowers.  From the deck, you quickly become aware that there are entire nations
of birds, lizards, mongeese, bees, and other bugs you don’t really want to think about that view the place as home.

The most common birds, bananaquits and Anguillan crested hummingbirds, rely heavily on the nectar produced by the bright yellow Ginger Thomas flower.  They get it, though, in two different ways:  while the hummingbirds use their tongues to go into the center of the flower, the bananaquits are a little more brutal.  They use their curved beak to pierce between the petals and the calyx (the little green pocket that holds the petals), to get directly to the nectar without any fuss.  This might be because, unlike hummingbirds, they cannot hover and must perch to get their food.  It also might be because it’s more fun that way, which is the explanation I tend to believe because of their relentless pugnacity.  (Also, anyone who’s ever torn apart a baked potato might appreciate this.)

I found this time that the Ginger Thomas isn’t the only local plant that produces the nectar these guys desire.  Along a stone wall above the house, some wild-looking cactuses grow.  They have long, spindly, wickedly thorned appendages that look like they just stopped flailing around the second you turned to look. And this visit, I found that they produce an equally-weird looking flower that was like crack cocaine to the hummingbirds and the bananaquits.

This is the lone bananaquit I caught actually getting at the cactus flower.  The rest of the time, the cactus was surrounded by a buzzing swirl of divebombing hummingbirds, who would argue in their rasping musical-saw voices with each other, the bananaquits, and me whenever I dared step foot outside.  (I always apologized profusely. I doubt the bananaquits did.) Now the hummingbirds move like lightning, and I’ve never been able to get any good photographs of them.  But when you’ve got the avian equivalent of a “Free Beer” sign right outside your door, you might just have a chance.

Gotcha. Anguillan Crested Hummingbirds on the Weird Cactus Flower.

In fact, one stuffed himself so much that he had to stop and take a break.

I ate the whole thing.

Most of the time, in the light you have, you’ll see these guys as nearly black, tiny little projectiles whizzing around in the branches or right past your head if they’re annoyed.  But in the shot above, you can really see the irridescence of their feathers.  (A moment later this guy de-poofed and zipped off, yelling at the top of his lungs at an interloper.)

The ferocious competition over the Weird Cactus Flower made me start thinking about nectar, and then honey.  St. Croix has a thriving apiary/beekeeper community, and the honey they produce is the best I’ve ever had.  Like fish and lobsters and fruit on the island, you can buy local honey in unexpected places:  for instance, from a little stand by the side of the road on the way from Blue Yonder to Christiansted.  So I bought some,

The secret weapon.

(well, a lot), and when I got home I started thinking about a St. Croix honey soap.

Mushroom cloud or alien spaceship? You make the call.

Honey soaps can be tricky; as with any additive that involves sugars, you take the risk of massively overheating the saponification reaction in the batter, and ending up with a) a mess  b) a disaster or c) a Soap Volcano, which is the absolute epitome of all soaping screwups.  I’ve seen pictures of soaps that their horrified makers described as “crawling out of the mold and across the counter,” bubbling and steaming and spreading its active lye on anything that came close. (Go ahead — Google it.)  But it isn’t that I’m blameless in this.  I’ve had a Tiny Soap Mushroom Cloud, and that’s about as close as I want to come to this experience.

So I had to think pretty carefully about the formula I’d use, and the technique for incorporating the honey, at what temperature I’d mix the oils and lye, and how I’d handle the molded soap afterwards.  It was pretty clear from my research that I had to disperse the honey in reserved water first, mix it in at “trace” (the point, demonstrated by a certain thickening, that the saponification reaction between the lye and oils is well and truly roaring along), and then whip that puppy into some ice after I molded it up.  If I didn’t disperse the honey well, it might recollect in droplets inside the soap — harmless and actually kind of cool (think “sweet honey in the rock”), but not exactly what I was after.  If I didn’t cool it down fast enough, I might end up playing Steve McQueen in “The Blob” to the dismay of everyone else in the house as well as the local HazMat team, who I seriously do not want to piss off.

So with all due caution, “St. Croix Honey Blossom” began to come together:  olive and coconut oils, shea butter, and a generous dollop of genuine St. Croix wild bee honey premixed for addition right before the mold.  I picked a combination of amber, honey, and citrus blossom fragrances to try to maintain the richness of the honey scent in the bottle I had.  And then I had one of those orthogonal ideas about how to color it — I’d try the stamens from a bouquet of Stargazer lilies that the UUH had brought home out of the basic goodness of his heart. For the next couple days, every time a blossom opened, I’d carefully clip the bright-orange stamens off and collect them in a little container.  Once they were done, the moment of truth arrived — would the stamens release their color at all, and if so, into what?  My first experiment was a grand slam.  Olive oil will release the color of the stamens, and it’s a beautiful dark red-orange.  I let it set for a day, strained it a few times, and then my new natural colorant was ready to go.

The very last aspect of the soap involved the garden. It ran wild all winter after I sowed a few seeds, and I went out a few days ago to find it blanketed in Calendula blossoms. Calendula is both a flower and an herb that’s been recognized since the Middle Ages for certain medicinal properties — but that wasn’t why I was going to use them this time.  Unlike almost every other herb or flower petal, Calendula petals do not turn brown when in contact with the high-pH of cold process soap. (Lavender is well known as turning into “mouse poo” after a few weeks on top of soap).   I cut a few, tossed them into the dehydrator, and in a few hours had the petals I needed for the tops of St. Croix Honey Blossom.

“St. Croix Honey Blossom.”

It’s a softer soap that’s going to take a bit longer to cure, but the stargazer colorant came through as a lovely honey shade, and when it’s done it should have superior lathering and conditioning qualities due to the honey and shea butter.  The fragrance is citrus blossom with a deep bottom note of pure honey.

I think both the bananaquits and the hummingbirds would be pleased.

 

 

 

Well, I’m Back

“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Like a lot of people — Frodo included — I’ve always admired Samwise the most among all of the cast of the Lord of the Rings.  This is a guy who is more than a little awkward to the people around him; he’s clumsy, shy, and completely transparent while others plot, negotiate and manipulate.  Yet he also has an impenetrable sense of duty and responsibility despite attacks from all directions, and most importantly he never gives up even in the worst circumstances.

If you’re going through hell, keep going.  — Winston Churchill

 

Coming home from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to India in January, excited and inspired by everything I’d seen, smelled, eaten, and done, I was immediately confronted by a terrible situation caused primarily by an adult who should have known better.  It knocked me flat but in the spirit of Samwise and Winston, as well as having no other option, I kept grinding through it with the help of the UUH (Unbelievably Useful Husband).  It took its toll — and continues to do so — but one of the nice things about alchemy is that you get to fool around with various dangerous substances when you’re emotionally out of your skull.

So, of course, that leads us to the soap.

Cold process soap — the soap you make “from scratch,” with oils, butters and our favorite drain-sizzling, death-fog-producing meth-lab pal, sodium hydroxide* — is a product that lends itself to enormous creativity in technique.  From single solid colors, to textured tops, to embedded objects and to swirls and layers, you can attempt practically anything with this stuff.  That’s not to say the finished soap is going to work out the way you envisioned it.  In fact, I can virtually guarantee you some sort of surprise with nearly every batch, even those where you think you’ve got the formula nailed down.  The surprise factor multiplies exponentially when you’re trying something new — a new ingredient, fragrance, colorant or technique. Usually, these surprises are bad.

Accordingly, under intense emotional stress, I decided to check every box of the above.

But let’s back up a minute.  In Kochi, India, I’d seen a performance of Kathakali dance.  It’s extraordinary mythic storytelling, performed silently except for a drum, with dancers who have trained for years to learn a complex vocabulary of gesture and expression.  The costuming and makeup are both dazzling and meaningful.  I knew as soon as I reeled out of the theater that I had to try to reproduce something about the experience, and it involved the colors I’d just seen.  My plans (and posting here) were held up at home as the bad situation developed, but eventually I found myself with enough time and sense to put my hand to something useful.  I decided I’d make a soap involving the colors of one of the Kathakali dancers (the guy right up there).  And to try to recreate the overwhelming sensory experience of the dance, I’d try to use a technique called “tiger stripe.”

Now I’ve tried tiger stripe before.  It’s demanding.  It requires exquisite timing and a thorough knowledge of your formula and ingredients.  But when it’s done right, it can produce a really nifty-looking soap.

“Swirling Reef of Death.” Named for a St. Croix snorkeling site that isn’t.

Swirling Reef is a pretty straightforward coconut, olive, palm kernel flake, and castor oil soap, colored with ultramarines, micas, and titanium dioxide to get the white.  The trick to the technique is emulsifying the soap completely — in other words, incorporating the lye into the oils thoroughly enough to start the saponification process — without letting it “trace” too thickly to pour in stripes, one color atop another, into the mold.  You gotta move fast with this, which means you have to emulsify the base batter BUT NOT TOO MUCH, add your fragrance, separate out the amounts for your colors, mix your colors, and then pour like a madwoman.  (Preferably to the “Benny Hill” theme music.)

With “Swirling Reef” under my belt, I gathered all the materials together for “Kathakali Dance.”   I was trying a new fragrance and new colorants, which should really have been the first hint that this would end in disaster, but I was undaunted.

Well, it was a disaster.  The batter traced and thickened almost instantaneously.  In a panic I just glopped everything into the mold, eventually using a spoon to dig nearly solid soap out of the mixing container and smash it in.  The finished product smells great, lathers beautifully, and looks like something growing on the side of a wet barn.  I can barely bring myself to look at it on the curing rack.  It is a continuing reproach.  It is my Cautionary Tale.

So instead of giving up like any sensible person, I decided to try it again.  I tweaked the formula (abandoning the palm kernel flakes, among other adjustments) in the hope that it would stay liquid longer.  I changed some of my colorants to micas.  I did use the same fragrance — an exotic and intoxicating mix of wood and spices, flowers and rain — because it seemed so perfect for the experience I was trying to recreate.  And then I got the mise in order, turned up the music, and threw myself at it.

“Kathakali Dance” — iteration two.

The green mica morphed blue a bit on me — I’m going to stick with ultramarines for green from now on, I think, and the black didn’t come across as much as I’d like — but otherwise it’s pretty close to what I had in mind.  It’s curing on the rack right next to its cousin.  To me, both illustrate Sam and Winston’s principle of not giving up.

* I’m using a little hyperbole here, except for the “meth-lab” part.

http://www.greatcakessoapworks.com/handmade-soap-blog/

 

The Mystery Soap Revealed

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I’d soon be showing a new soap, now cured, that required a completely unique fragrance mix — as well as a pretty complex ingredient formula.  It was hand-milled (in other words, made twice over) in order to get just the right texture, hardness, color, lathering and gentleness that I was after.  So here it is:

The Mystery Soap

The ingredients, made in the cold-process method, included olive oil, coconut oil, spice-infused rice bran oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, castor oil, and coconut milk. It was colored with red clay. The fragrance is layered: the gentle bottom note is the scent of earth after rain, followed by a developing aura of curry spice, coconut, sandalwood, amber, and patchouli, and finished with a delicate top note of the beautiful scent of pomegranate and osmanthus flowers in the sun.  It was finished with a stamp of two hearts becoming one, and hand-brushed with gold and pearly white micas.

It was a genuine pleasure to make, and so far it’s a delight in the shower.  It was made in honor of two friends — and I’ve called it “Monsoon Wedding.”

Blue Yonder Original Botanicals — The End of the Year Roundup

This year has been quite the experience for the Accidental Alchemist — I’ve tried everything from canning herb-infused jelly made from our own cabernet sauvignon grapes (you can read about that little fighting vine here), to using a pressure canner for the first time, to slaughtering chickens, dividing The Brave Little Valerian‘s root crown and experimenting with permaculture principles, preparing custom herbal teas, and making an herbal-based muscle salve from infusion to finished product.  With the other Alchemists who post here, I’ve learned about chickenkeeping, mushroom hunting, and cake decorating.

Making soap, though, is my special project, and I thought I’d put together a roundup of what I made this year.

Some folks know from reading the blog that I am in love with the Caribbean island of St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of these soaps were inspired by the island in some way — the sky, the sea, and the earth.  Below are some photographs from the amusingly small, completely handcrafted “production line” of what we are now calling Blue Yonder Original Botanicals.  (You can virtually “tour” the actual Blue Yonder in St. Croix at www.blueyonderstcroix.com).

The Sky Series

“Morning Sun” is probably our personal favorite and the favorite of many of our testers (for whose patience I am profoundly grateful).  It is a classic olive oil, coconut oil, and shea butter formulation, fragranced with orange and litsea cubeba essential oils, and finished with a soap stamp hand-brushed with skin-safe mica.  It deserves its own position of honor for its gentleness and invigorating, get-your-day started scent.

Handmade soap “Morning Sun”

 

Another favorite for our testers was probably the most exotic soap I’ve made to date — the stunning “Night Sky.”  “Night Sky” was inspired by the view of the stars in St. Croix, a view made possible by a sky so deep black that you can see clearly the Milky Way. (Want to know why? Go here.)  It is a coconut oil, olive oil, and coconut milk formula, colored with activated charcoal, and scented with a rich, deep fragrance oil of sandalwood and amber.  It was finished with a very light hand-brushing of copper, gold, and pearl micas.

handmade soap “Night Sky”

Sunsets in St. Croix are spectacular nearly every night, with bands of shaded color that stretch across the entire sky.

One sunset from Blue Yonder

 

That’s a banana tree to the far right — it took a bit of a hit in the last run of storms, but is still hanging tough.  The geographical feature close to the center, beneath the moon, probably has a real name but I call it “The Nose.”  In order to even try to replicate this, I had to investigate a new technique.  The soapmakers call it “ombre” or “ombre layering,” and it requires a level of preparation comparable to a moon shot, the ability to not panic when something doesn’t go as expected (not my strong suit), and a great deal of luck.  But in the end, what came out of the mold was “St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars.”

handmade soap “St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars”

 

How I managed to get even a hint of “The Nose” in there, I’ll never know.  But the colorants included activated charcoal, ultramarines in blue, violet and pink, an FD&C approved liquid soap colorant for the gold, and a dusting of mica in a olive oil, coconut oil, sustainable palm oil and castor oil formula. The fragrance, like “Night Sky” above, was a warm and evocative amber and sandalwood, but with light top notes of spice and Caribbean flowers.

Finally for the “Sky” series, this year saw a convergence of two events: a “blue moon” at the end of August, and the funeral of Neil Armstrong.  A “blue moon” is simply an “extra” full moon during a lunar cycle, and Neil Armstrong remains one of my personal heroes.  So when the blue moon occurred, I broke out the soapmaking stuff and got to work.  I’d made a small tube mold of goatmilk soap with crushed organic chamomile flowers that had been sitting for a few days, and I was pretty confident that it might withstand — without melting — inclusion as an “embed” in another soap.  So I formulated up olive oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and castor oil, emulsified it, colored it with activated charcoal and ultramarine blue, did the pouring and embedding and crossed my fingers.

“Blue Moon (for Neil Armstrong)”

 

The fragrance came out very light, as they sometimes do for no explainable reason, but this one was an amber, milk and honey that becomes stronger in the shower.  It’s a very gentle and richly lathering soap that’s turning into one of my personal favorites.

The Sea Series

It requires a better writer than I am to describe the seas around St. Croix without resorting to the most tired cliches.

Sea breaking over reef

 

It is constantly changing in color, from deep blues to the most delicate of teals, streaks of green and purple, and always the white foam of the waves breaking.

 

 

 

The view from Blue Yonder, when the sea turned to rose

 

Some evenings, the sunset will reflect from the clouds and sky and turn the sea into a stunning rose.

 

 

 

The view from Turtle Beach on Buck Island

 

 

Buck Island’s Turtle Beach is where a flatfish is now wearing my husband’s wedding ring as a tiara.  The entire island, and the reefs around it, are designated a National Monument. It contains an underwater snorkeling trail, with signs explaining everything you are swimming through and gasping at.  That’s where we met the “Blue Tang Clan” and the “Squid Squad,” as well as one tense moment with four barracudas staring flatly, utterly motionless, at us. (These are fish who can appear to contemplate, better than any other fish I’ve ever seen, how easily they can turn you into chum.)  It’s also where we swam with a pod of wild dolphins and saw wild mongeese in the woods.

This level of sensory input is a pretty high barrier to overcome, and I’m still working on trying to recreate even a sense of the Caribbean sea in some of the soaps I make.

“Harbor”

 

“Harbor” was my first experience with a “fast-accelerating” ocean fragrance oil.  Some scents can speed up the saponification process, turning your soap batter into cement in seconds. (We call it “soap on a stick,” the stick being your stirring spoon).  I managed to slap a few pieces of Harbor into individual molds before the rest of it hardened into something you’d use to pave a landing strip.  The color, though, did come out very true to the blue you see in the harbors of the Caribbean, the scent very ocean-like and refreshing, and the lather was very good.

“Reef Sea”

“Reef Sea” was the result of the rest of the soap batch, which hadn’t contained the accelerating fragrance.  I mixed several ultramarine colorants and did a basic swirl to try to recreate the mixing of the colors of the sea as it breaks over a coral reef. The fragrance I did try was an evocative “island” scent, full of flowers and fruit, while at the same time carrying a whiff of salt and sea.

The next attempt was inspired by the photograph above from Turtle Beach at Buck Island.  Dozens of boats, from small two-manners to giant yachts, are moored at any time at marinas all over the island.  One of the most exhilarating experiences you can have is taking a half- or full-day deep-sea fishing trip, or taking a catamaran out to Buck Island.  Boating and sailing are intrinsic parts of island life, and I wanted to try to capture what it looks like when you are just heading out on a beautiful day.

“Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

Boating isn’t all there is to the sea, though.  St. Croix is famous for “The Wall,” a ledge that runs along the north shore of the island and can drop to 13,000 feet deep.  It’s a favorite of serious divers — the diversity and richness of the sea life is stunning, as is the clarity of the water.  But even casual snorkelers can find sites that suit their level of swimming skill and snorkeling experience all over the island.  Most of these sites have names that range from accurate to hilarious.  My favorite has always been the “Swirling Reef of Death,” and I felt, when I discovered a new swirling technique (the “zebra stripe” or “spoon swirl”), that I had to get on it right away.

“Swirling Reef of Death”

Needless to say, the “Swirling Reef of Death” isn’t.  It’s a peaceful, warm, and beautiful spot that absolutely deserves a soap like this to maintain its reputation.  The formula is simple but classic, a basic coconut oil, olive oil, sustainable palm kernel oil, and castor oil formula with ultramarines and micas as colorants.  The scent is another island type — sandalwood and amber, with fresh flowers and fruit.

The Earth Series

“Rainforest”

The island is more than just the sea and sky cradling it.  St. Croix is small island that contains astonishing geographical diversity — the east end is drier, suitable even for cactus species, while the western half contains an actual rainforest.  Driving through the rainforest (you’d probably take Mahogany Road, named after the magnificent trees that populate the area) can be a hair-raising experience, but well worth the occasional alarm from washed-out stream-crossings and crumbling asphalt.  It is a place of such extraordinary color and variation that of course I made a soap.

“Rainforest” was my first experiment with completely herbal and clay colorants.  Some folks might know that I grow herbs, lots of them, and I was excited to try using them to color soap as opposed to my usual ultramarines and oxides.  So in order to try to capture the shifting variations of greens in the forest canopy, I chose comfrey leaf, nettle leaf, and French green clay as my swirl colors.  The formula was as basic as I could get it, just olive oil and coconut oil, because I had no idea about what these babies were going to do.  The fragrance was what I knew was a well-behaved sandalwood and fruit with a top note of lemongrass, and I put in some ground chamomile flowers for a slight exfoliation effect. Nothing accelerated, everyone behaved, and after a stint in a Pringles can mold (this was before I had the PVC pipe that I use now) I had “Rainforest.”  I stamped it with a little rubber leaf stamp I found in a long-abandoned kids’ art project box, and brushed it with just a little mica.

Enfleuraging Ginger Thomas flowers

Then there’s “Christiansted,” which was my first try at rebatching a soap into something new.  I’d made a soap that didn’t work out at all the way it was supposed to, even though it contained a very labor-intensive enfleurage of Ginger Thomas flowers that I’d made on the island. The stuff looked great when first poured into the mold.

Wow! Look at that color!

 

 

Sadly, the color did not hold, and I ended up with a white soap that the UUH (Unbelievably Useful Husband) disliked. Colors and fragrances can morph, intensify, and completely disappear on you in soapmaking.  It’s part of the alchemy.  I suppose tearing your hair out is too, which is why the medieval guys wore those ridiculous hats.

Shredding soap for a rebatch.

Yup, that’s the color it turned — a very nice white, but not at all what I was after.  I had to do some research on how to rebatch soap, which in my case meant creating another new batch up, melting the shreds into the new batch, recoloring, and refragrancing.  I was inspired here by the charming little harbor town of Christiansted, and I wanted to capture the colors of the buildings there.

The colors are worn to pastels by the sea and salt, battered by rains, constantly washed by the tradewinds, but remain beautiful and vibrant all the same.  I chose a Moroccan rose clay for what’s called an “in-the-pot” swirl, as opposed to a swirl you attempt in a mold (see “Swirling Reef of Death” for an example of the latter), and ended up with “Christiansted.”  It turned out to be one of my testers’ most popular soaps.

“Christiansted”
“Sea Glass in Sand”

“Sea Glass in Sand” was a bit of a stunt soap, my experimenting with adding glycerine soap chunks to my own cold-process goat milk formulation.  I was trying to recreate the experience of finding sea glass, which is ordinary broken glass worn smooth and jewel-like by the action of sea and sand, during a walk on the beach.  I used commercial glycerine soap for the chunks, as I don’t have the experience for doing it myself, and it is a complex and chemical process best left to the commercial operations.  This photograph was shot soon after cutting; in the weeks it has been curing, it has whitened so dramatically that it surprises even me.  The fragrance has “stuck” beautifully.

Finally, there’s “Turtle Tracks,” which is a soap I am absolutely delighted with.  On St. Croix, as on most Caribbean islands, sea turtles come up on the beaches to dig their nests and lay eggs.  The citizens of the island take their responsibility toward the turtles very seriously. Entire beaches, or areas of beaches, can be roped off completely; and in places where that’s not quite necessary, nests are clearly marked with “Stay Off” signs.  At night, when they’re ready, the little turtles emerge and make their dash for the sea. They leave very distinctive tracks behind, and one day I saw them at the Tamarind Reef Resort. While this isn’t a picture I took, it’ll give you an idea of what you’ll see when you go, and why I became so enchanted with the idea of making a soap about this heroic effort:

I knew I had to make it small, like the turtles, so a guest-sized soap seemed appropriate. I had a little left of some jojoba oil that I had infused with mullein flowers, organic yarrow, and Ginger Thomas from the island; to that I formulated coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter, and castor oil, and added a little ground chamomile flowers to give the appearance of the sand. Recreating the turtle tracks was the hardest part.  I ended up using one of those cheap little sponge eyeshadow applicators and a tiny brush for the mica to pick the tracks out from the “sand.”

“Turtle Tracks”

While the island provides a lot of inspiration to me, I also began to experiment with fragrances as well as formulas for different reasons.  For one person, I developed a rose absolute and vetiver fragranced shea-butter formula that is now and forever will be “Tracy’s Rose”:

“Tracy’s Rose”

 

“Phoenix”

 

There was “Phoenix,” a shea-butter formula with an oatmeal, milk and honey fragrance. I did do some new work with stamping and mica-brushing.
New molds can give “usual” formulas very interesting new looks.
And lastly, I had a special request from a very special person to make a Chocolate Soap. Now I had some things to consider; in the house there were allergies, so I had to avoid any oils or butters that might be nut-derived.  Coconut oil was okay, so I could use that.  I wanted to avoid any colorants if possible, and I knew that any fragrance that contained vanilla would naturally darken the soap to a chocolate brown.  I researched the safest chocolate fragrances and planned out the pour.  My task was clear; the end result was “Chocolate Pie.”

“Chocolate Pie”

Right now, a soap is curing that required a completely unique fragrance mix, and that I’ll introduce at some point in the near future.  Creating new fragrances from infused oils, fragrance oils, and essential oils has been an unexpected and delightful surprise from the soapmaking venture I’ve gone on this year, as well as learning the physical techniques of pouring and swirling, cutting and curing.  With the generosity of the UUH I now have beautiful and useful devices for cutting, planing, and finishing the pieces that I’ve made.

“The Tank” — wire soapcutter handmade in Hong Kong.

I’d like to thank everyone who tried my soaps, gave me feedback, and listened to my moaning about all the trials and tribulations.  It’s only going to get more interesting from here on out at Blue Yonder, and I’ll keep you up to date.

 

Phoenix From The Rain

Fire to heat you,

Earth to hold you,

Water to heal you,

With the wind in your arms, now rise

 

I don’t remember where I read that, or even if it’s an accurate memory that I read it at all; it came back to me this morning when I was suffering through yet another coughing fit from my usual bout of late-summer bronchitis.  I tend to get it when the weather turns cold and damp in the mornings, right before the rains come.  It’s the kind that lags on for weeks, bothersome not so much for the coughing (though that’s annoying) but for the aches and fatigue that come along for the ride.

As I think I’ve mentioned in another post, houses, kids, pets and gardens need care even when you’re sick, and the advice to “take it easy” is pretty laughable (something you can’t do because you’ll trigger another coughing fit) when cars break down, ants are making exploratory forays into various parts of the house, kids need rides, the dog gets sick and has to go to the vet, the new herbs you’re counting on are shriveling visibly, and everyone is suddenly out of clean underpants.

It’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed at times like this.  When it happens, I usually retreat back to the Middle Ages. (I highly recommend this approach — it doesn’t have to be medieval Europe, it can be any ancient epoch, anywhere. Pick one that appeals to you.)  The legend of the Phoenix was the first thing I ran across in my books. Cultures from ancient China and India to Arabia and Europe share the story of a beautiful and wise bird that consumes itself on an incensed fire yet returns, reborn and new.  It is an image of a terrible trial, a vision of horrifying suffering and yet, somehow, great hope.

Medieval European alchemists used the figure of the phoenix in their writings as the clue to the element of sulfur, the color red, and the representation of a fire that at first seems to destroy, but instead purifies and transforms what it touches.

I had a request for more soap today, and I had a very small new batch that was cured and ready.  It’s a classic coconut, olive and castor oil formula with a very rich element of shea butter and the addition of organic crushed chamomile flowers from my garden.  With the idea of the phoenix in my mind, I stamped it and brushed it with copper and white micas. The fragrance is, I think, a very appropriate milk and honey.

Phoenix

 

It’s a Blue Moon, Time To Make Soap

As if I didn’t have enough soaps already curing, yesterday’s Blue Moon required another batch.  You see, soapmaking — like herbal medicine, farming, and beer-brewing — has legends dating back to the Middle Ages about how the cycle of the stars and the phases of the moon can affect what you are trying to make, brew or grow, and it’s best to assess the status of the universe before trying anything. A Blue Moon — an “extra” full moon in a season — is an auspicious time for new endeavors.

Yesterday was also the funeral of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon,  and one of my heroes as I was growing up (damn my lack of math skills! If I had them I’d be in NASA with a mohawk!)  The convergence of all these events obviously required action, even though I’d managed to land one of the worst summer colds of all time.

A few days ago I’d rebatched a cold-process soap that I wasn’t happy with, and had experimented with using a paper-towel cardboard tube lined with freezer paper as a mold.  It came out quite nicely and had been curing for a few days, so I had some faith it was hard enough to withstand use as an embed in new soap.  I also had developed a new formula involving sustainable Palm Kernel Oil that needed testing.  All this, the Blue Moon, my alchemical responsibilities, and Neil Armstrong’s passing got me into the kitchen last night despite the utter misery of a summer cold.

I couldn’t resist unmolding and cutting a little early today , simply due to the anticipation of a new formula and a new technique.  But I can present Blue Moon right now:

Blue Moon, in honor of Neil Armstrong

The embed (the moon) is a goatmilk soap with dried, crushed organic chamomile flowers from my backyard. The surrounding soap is a classic olive oil, palm kernel oil, palm oil and castor oil formula, designed for decent hardness while offering excellent conditioning properties. It’s colored with ultramarine blue and activated charcoal.  I could go on and on about the nature of the fragrance, but it smells like the best warm summer night you ever had as a teenager, when the world was peaceful and safe yet bursting with possibility — like a man walking on the moon.

Soap and the Caribbean

It’s been a busy couple days for the Alchemist.  If you’ll recall, the first attempt at a genip syrup off an Ancient Document (a Virgin Islands newspaper from 1973) did not have a good result.  From perfectly good genips I ended up with a burned, wretched mess that went directly into the garbage.  The second attempt, however, was focused entirely on getting juice, and to do that I relied on my technique for persuading it out of prickly pears.  Five bunches and a dollop of water over a very low simmer for hours seemed to do the trick.

Genip juice Now that’s more like it.

I ended up with about four cups of the strained juice, which was a lot more than I expected.  But this was a good thing, because I intended to do two things with it — use some of the juice as the liquid to dissolve the lye in my first island-made soap, and the rest to make a syrup in the way that I knew how.

The only problem I had is that my lye hadn’t arrived.  Without lye there is no handmade cold-process soap, so day after day went by with my anxious checking of the USPS tracking site, only to find that my sodium hydroxide languished in Sebring, Florida, for days (is there good sightseeing there, or what?) and then took a few day trips out of Catano, Puerto Rico. I just hope it found a good hotel.

I’ll note this was no fault of the supplier — Essential Depot, which unlike most soapmaking suppliers can ship everywhere.  As far as I can tell, they’ve got the docs to ship to the moon (sodium hydroxide requires special permissions and papers to ship across the street, apparently).  Their customer service is first rate.  They picked up a problem in my shipping address instantly, fixed it on the phone, and my package was on its way the same day.  I’d recommend them to anyone trying this out.

On Tuesday night, literally minutes after I’d left the post office in yet another fruitless quest, I learn from the USPS tracking website that the package had dropped.  Of course it was too late to pick it up then — the office closed literally seconds after I read the email (/banghead) — so it was all up to Wednesday.  I set up the mise as well as I could, considering that I was jerry-rigging more than a bit of the usual setup.  But I’d found some locally-made, beautifully clear coconut oil sold by our local Rastafarians; I had genip juice; I had some light-colored olive oil, and that was basically my formula.  70% olive, 30% coconut, a 34% lye concentration and a whole lot of prayer for my first island soap.

I was stuck here without essential oils, fragrance oils, or any of my usual colorants, so I tried a couple things.  First was the attempted infusion of fresh red hibiscus flowers into some coconut oil.  Guess what? Hibiscus flowers, while water soluble into a fantastic tea,

What do you want me to do again?

will not give it up in oil.  They sit there, get soggy, and look more and more resentful. Same deal with the Jamaican sorrel and ginger tea.  So I gave up the oil infusion idea, measured off the correct amount of genip juice for the soap formula, and popped a couple of the teabags into it.  In a few minutes II had a gloriously deep red color.

 

 

Now I know that soap colorants, especially herbal ones, can change, morph, or even disappear without as much as a text message (FU HAHA SOAP NOOB), so I wasn’t too overjoyed. But I was hopeful.

 

When the lye arrived and I ripped home with it, I started the process right away. I was using a Pringles can as a stunt mold (because it was easiest, really) and had it propped up inside a hideous vase left behind by the previous owners.  I prepped the lye outside on the concrete driveway, because I had no clue as to what would happen and decided I’d rather not burn a hole through either myself or my kitchen floor if something went horrifically awry.  When the lye hit the sorrel-infused genip juice**, it turned a violent neon green, the juice itself started swirling bright orange, and then it rippled back through a dark red as the lye dissolved.  After the shock of this hallucinogenic color experience had dissipated I raced back inside, strained it into the prepared oils, and started into it with the stick blender that had taken me two days to find on island.

It took forever to “trace” (emulsify and thicken up during the saponification process enough to mold), and by the time it did, it was the most hideous color I’d ever seen — a horrific greenish brown that looked like it had been scraped from the bottom of an abandoned boat and then left in an abandoned basement inside a diseased bucket, and that had me thisclose to tossing it all into the garbage.  But I kept the faith and molded it.  And this morning, I tossed the can into the freezer for a half hour or so and then unmolded and cut it. The color had deepened and evened, and it’s possible that it might redden over time — herbal colorants are tricky creatures and while a cold-processed soap cures, the colors can change.  What you can see, here, is how the soap is “sweating.”  While soaps taken out of the freezer frequently do this, this particular soap was suffering just as much as we were in the heat.

Ahh, outside breezes.

 

 

So at first I took it outside where there was a light wind that I thought might help dry it quickly.   And then I started worrying about sudden downpours, birds, and bugs, and concluded that technology was obviously the answer. The next step is to leave some here with our friends, to see how it cures in the Caribbean, and to take some home with us to keep an eye on it there.  But it is my first real island soap, made with island ingredients in real island heat, humidity and wind.  My curiosity on how this simple formula will come out is overwhelming.  While it isn’t the sexiest-looking soap out there, it’s got the advantage of being The First.

 

 

 

Burning the Genips

These are genips:

Genip, quenepa, Spanish lime The noble Genip, a.k.a. Melicoccus bijugatus, if you’re feeling Scientific.

This fruit comes from a tree in the soapberry family — not very promising, I know, but go with me on this — that’s either native or naturalized to most of the Caribbean Islands and to Central and South America.  It’s also got more names across these places than Jupiter has moons (63 to date, in case you’re astronomically oriented). A small sampling: quenepa, kenepa, canepa, kenep, talpa jacote, xenepa, and Spanish lime.  For a small, bunching, and largely unprepossessing fruit, that’s a lot of monikers, and the fact that the Jamaicans call it an “ackee” (NOT to be confused with that other ackee) only adds to the confusion.

What that brittle shell is hiding.

Here in St. Croix they are ubiquitous, and I picked up a bunch for a dollar from a truck parked on the side of the road.  (You can also acquire the insanely delicious Caribbean lobster, various fish, papayas, bananas, coconuts, and mangoes the same way.  I heartily recommend this approach.)  The fruits have a thin, brittle outer shell.

In the usual method you crack the shell between your teeth, spit it out, and then chew and suck off the sweet, orange, fibrous flesh that clings somewhat stubbornly to a large central seed.  Some folks believe that it’s a bit too much work for too little reward, but I love the citrusy top note, followed up with a warm and delicately sweet flavor that just bellows “YOU’RE IN THE TROPICS” to your taste buds.

But that’s not enough for an accidental alchemist.  Nope, I decided I was going to try to make some syrup from the genips.  For all good alchemists every project begins with research into ancient documents, just as for all good software programmers every project begins with a T-shirt.  Astoundingly, I found a reference in the Virgin Islands Daily News from 1973, preserved by Google with all its dark arts.  Genip Syrup

The recipe recommends popping them out of their shells, which is an easy and unusually enjoyable experience, putting them in a pot, and dumping some sugar over them to extract the juice.

Genips in sugar. I’m just following the instructions.

After a curiously unexplained period of this extraction, you’re to wring them out and then add a ton more sugar.  So I wrangled with the proportions a bit, because I didn’t have a gallon’s worth of genips, put them into a pot, and sat around.

After a curiously unexplained period of time I noticed not a lot of juice seemed to be presenting itself, so I shifted gears a bit to something I did know how to do — get juice out of prickly pear fruits.  This technique requires that you warm the cut fruits over a very, very slow heat for (again) a curiously unexplained period of time.  So I put a lid on, started up the simmer burner, and congratulated the genips on their brand new sauna.

Now let me tell you, genips are tough little brats and just as they don’t want to give up their fruit when you’re chewing on them, they don’t want to give up their juice even while simmering.  I noticed that while the sugar had liquified, I wasn’t getting a lot of anything else out of these delinquents.

So I popped in about a half cup of water to encourage the process.  That seemed to turn the trick.  Once the water started simmering, I got a marvelous, citrusy fragrance wafting through the air, and a quick taste screamed “GENIP!” from the liquid in the pot.  I did the little alchemist woo-woo dance (yes, that’s the official name) and decided to work on something else while they continued to simmer out all their wonderfulness.

There are multitaskers, and then there are non-multitaskers.  While admitting that you are a poor multitasker is a great mark of shame, well, I’m Cat and I’m a terrible multitasker.  By the time I surfaced for air and remembered the genips, they’d burned — the water had simmered away, the sugar had burned and hardened, and the genips themselves were mean, shriveled, dark orange and blackened balls that essentially seethed with resentment at me from the bottom of the pot.  I didn’t even have enough energy through the despair to take a picture of this disaster.  Into the garbage it went.

What I did, though, was go out the next day and get five,  not one, bunches of these punks from the truck at the side of the road.

Then we will fight in the shade!

Because even through the disaster, I have some great ideas.  I have some soap stuff that I managed to figure out how to ship here, and which should arrive in the next day or so.  I think a simple genip juice (no sugar) would be an excellent water for the lye mix — or at least the kind of experiment that makes alchemy worth doing.  And I think I’ve gotten the line on the syrup workings.  It’ll be a pretty interesting next few days.

 

A Day’s Alchemy

But the daily we have always with us, a nagging reminder that the dishes must be done, the floor mopped or vacuumed, the dirty laundry washed . . .  Precisely because it is so important, so close to us, so basic, so bound up with home and nurture, it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public . . . This may be an example of a familiarity that has bred contempt, a kind of hubris that allows men and women alike to imagine that by devaluing the bonds that connect us to the womanly, to the household, to the daily, we can rise above them.  — Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

But it is in this work — the daily, the tedious, the repetitive — that our deepest alchemy can and does reveal itself.

For most of us, the day has a predictable routine.  For me during the summer mornings, it’s making coffee, ensuring the cats have breakfast, opening the windows and screen doors to bring in the fresh morning air and the birdsongs, and then a little later making breakfast for Unbelievably Useful Husband. (The Kid is usually sleeping in.).  There’s usually some kitchen cleanup that needs doing during all this, and probably a laundry bump, and the dogs always desperately need to go out just when I’m involved in something requiring my total attention. (This set of behaviors is called “clearing the decks.”)  But breakfast is always a pleasure to cook.  If you recall from “Belay those Olallieberries,” we make our own bacon:

Homemade smoked bacon. Maple syrup, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and a bit of sweet cherry smoke.
Sliced homemade bacon. Ready to go, Captain.

. This is what the bacon looks like, when it’s sliced and ready for cooking.  Unless you have a meat slicer, you can’t get the see-through, weirdly clingy, paper-thin slices of commercial bacon, but a sharp knife and a steady hand creates a pleasantly thick piece that will fry up beautifully in the pan.

 

Frying homemade bacon. In the pan, slow and steady.

Homemade bacon requires a bit more time and care to cook.  All that lovely maple syrup, honey, brown sugar and molasses will burn in a flash if the heat is too high, so slow and steady wins this race.  You’ll not see any of the strange gray bubbly water boiling out of it as in commercial varieties; just bacon fat, rendering cleanly and purely and stupendously fragrantly as you cook.  Frequent turning makes sure each side is browned and crisped evenly.  A quick blot on a towel, and there’s breakfast.

No magic here except for heat — judiciously applied to an egg and some meticulously spiced, cured and smoked pork belly.

Cooks (usually women) since the dawn of more-or-less civilized time have understood the principle of judicious heat; it took medieval alchemists a lot longer to stop blowing up their labs.  More fire is not necessarily better.

Once the breakfast cook and cleanup and various animal and house-tendings are done, it’s usually time for the garden walkabout. Today, I noticed that the beautiful Gulf Fritillary butterflies were bombing around the garden again; I talked about them a bit in “The Passion of the Passiflora.”  It was the time of day, though, when the sun had just dried the dew off the herbs. Herbalists say that this is the time to harvest what you need — it’s supposedly when the essential oils contained in the herbs are at their height — so I armed myself with a basket and scissors and got the job done.

Herbs from home garden.Lemon verbena, tarragon, golden lemon thyme, various basils, oregano, and more yarrow aerials were up today.

Once you’ve harvested an herb, the clock starts ticking — you have to decide what to do with it.  Some people swear by freezing tender herbs like basils in ice cubes, saying that the technique reliably preserves the flavor and texture of the leaves.  I have no doubt that this is true, but I also have no room in my freezer because it is almost entirely occupied by a million pounds of olalliberries.

Home-grown herbs ready for dehydrating. Off to the Lab.

So off to the McGuffin the herbs will go — the Excalibur dehydrator that lurks in the Lab. I have a nine-tray model, so there’s usually no issue about running out of space. Once they’re done (a few hours at 95F for most), I’ll take them out and garble them, and then put them into my herb bottles. There — unirradiated, unpesticided, and uncrushed, they’ll retain their flavor for a long time.

The Gulf Fritillaries were still in the back of my mind even as I was fussing with the McGuffin.  I saw a few of them dancing while I was out harvesting, weeding, and watering the garden, so I thought I’d take a look at what was happening to the Passiflora incarnata.  Sure enough, we had our annual visitors.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar on a Passiflora incarnata. Oh, there’s more than one of me.

Caterpillars don’t move fast, but the butterflies do. These butterflies move like fighter planes, fast and unpredictable, and I have about ten thumbs with this camera, so my brilliant idea to try to catch a picture was probably hopeless as a start.  Hope springs eternal, though, so I planted myself next to the Passiflora and waited.  One butterfly circled my head about fifteen times before she settled down.  When I took the picture, I realized that she was overseeing two large caterpillars directly below her.

Gulf Fritillary adult butterfly and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Mom, checking on the kids.

As I appeared to be entirely harmless, she stayed only a few moments before she decided that she was required elsewhere.

Adult Gulf Fritillary and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Everybody looks okay. Off to yoga.

There were other household management things to do, some of which can take hours.  But after all that was done, I had a few other things to do:  I’d been infusing a jojoba and fractionated coconut oil with yarrow and mullein flowers, and it was ready for pressing and straining.  Yarrow is well known for surface skin-repairing and smoothing effects, and has been used since the classical age for stanching the bleeding from battlefield wounds.  Mullein is spoken about frequently as an assisting herb for lung conditions (Native Americans are reputed to have smoked it).  Another of its reputed effects, though, is as a healer for deeper tissues and structures even in a carrier oil.

Jojoba and fractionated coconut massage oil, infused with herbs Yarrow, mullein and Ginger Thomas herbs, infused in jojoba. I think gold costs less than jojoba.

Some minutes wrestling with cheesecloth and multiple strainers later, I had the oil I was after. I’m probably going to use it in a soap, though I’m not sure which formula yet.  Jojoba and fractionated coconut oil have absolutely marvelous moisturizing and smoothing qualities on the skin, and the herb infusions, I hope, will only amplify them.

 

 

Finally, I saw from my calendar that a curing soap was about ready to make its way in the world.  Making cold-processed soap (e.g., soap that is made from scratch, with specifically chosen oils, waxes, butters, and other ingredients, saponified with lye and left to cure for several weeks to harden) is a practice that requires patience.  It is also one of the best examples of ordinary alchemies that exist.  From a bowl of liquid oils and fragments of lye arises something entirely different.  It’s been changed in its essential nature by a chemical reaction that must have seemed like  magic for most of human history.  (Soapmaking isn’t the only process where this occurred — in the Middle Ages, alewives would mix their wort and then cross themselves and say a prayer, as the wild yeasts would begin the fermentation process.)

This soap is part of the “Sky” series I’ve been working on.  It was inspired by a photograph of the clouds, sea and horizon taken from Buck Island on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Handmade soap, inspired by St. Croix “Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

It was made with pure coconut, olive, palm and castor oils, and colored with ultramarines. The fragrance is “clean and marine” with just a touch of musk and citrus to deepen it.  I cleaned up the edges a bit, made sure it was pH safe, and told it to say “Cheese” while I took its picture.  While it’s not gold — the goal that every medieval alchemist was after, if not the elixir of eternal life — it’s still a pretty good thing to have made at the end of the day.

The same goes with breakfast, and dinner, and bacon, and herbing, and growing things, and even doing laundry and dishes and cleaning up after the spills and flaws and damages of daily life.   Each action requires some kind of applied change, a thoughtful — even if passing — alchemy to the circumstances around us.  And even if they are the things that Kathleen Norris mentions as so basic, so bound up in home and nurture, the “little things” that we disregard now in preference for the public, it’s worth remembering what Sister Teresa of Calcutta said:  “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”

 

 

 

 

Rainforests, Soap, and Sinus Surgery

One of the fascinating features of the little island in the Caribbean is the extraordinary diversity of its geography.  The East End of the island is hilly and dry, covered in low scrub and bush like tan-tan and Ginger Thomas stands, and bears the forefront of the tradewinds that sweep in from the sea.  The center of the island flattens out a bit, but still features gentle curving hills that once sustained sprawling sugar cane plantations.  And going on to the West End, you find an remarkable feature — a genuine rainforest that climbs into the sky. There’s really only one main road that will take you through the rainforest, and it’s a trip best done slowly and carefully; there are sections of the road that wash out in interesting ways, and you’ll find yourself crossing running water more than once. But the varied colors and movement of the forest that surrounds you, the shifting light and fragrances of the plants and the earth, make it a trip well worth making.  It also inspired me to try to recreate at least some of the experience in a soap.

St. Croix is remaking itself as a destination island for people interested in highly skilled, deliciously authentic, and locally grown organic food.  There are several farms now that not only supply local restaurants and markets, but also offer apprenticeships, vacation stays, and camps teaching how to grow quality organic food in a tropical clime.  In honor of this resurrection, I decided I’d use only herbal colorants for the soap this time.

 

 

There are a number of online shops to obtain soapmaking resources.  I found one, soap-making-resource.com, that offered a sample pack of various spice and herbal colorants for use in cold-process soaps.  The bag I received was enormous and contained everything from activated charcoal to madder root to alkanet to dandelion.  After a bit of research on the type of greens I was after, I chose three:  Comfrey Leaf, Nettle Leaf, and French Green Clay.

Greens and blues can be tough colors to create in soap, even if you’re using the more ordinary pigments, micas, and liquid colorants.  As in any alchemy, colors can change, morph, or even disappear on you without even so much as a courtesy phone call.  Herbs double down the difficulty — so many have hideous reputations for turning bizarrely awful colors, smelling odd, or refusing to do anything at all.  So I knew going in that practically anything could happen, and there was an additional level of pressure involved — my mom was coming into town and I’d promised to show her how to make soap.

She was coming in on a mercy mission — to help take care of the Kid, who was having sinus surgery that week and more hands are better in that kind of situation.  I knew the day after the surgery the Kid would be off on a sleepy-happy little cloud of Vicodin, so that would be the best day to try the soap.  I started gathering and setting up the gear.  But what mold to use? 

The guys to the right are classic soap molds.  The dark blue is a loaf mold, and the lighter blue is a single-bar slab mold that I usually use for testing new colors and fragrances, or for overflow soap. I’m also going to start experimenting with it for swirling techniques that are difficult to do in loaf molds.

But there are other, more oddball options.

“Morning Sun.”

Yes, that is a Pringles can, and it creates a lovely round bar if everything goes right.  I’ve heard of some folks lining theirs and using it multiple times, but for me it’s a one-off.  This is primarily because it gives me a perfect excuse to eat the chips. “I need a new round mold!”  I’d used a Pringles can before and produced the “Morning Sun” soap.

Trying another round soap appealed to me, so I fished out a can I’d been saving (much to my mom’s amusement), and we got the show on the road.  Mom had chosen a combination of fragrances that she thought smelled like a bright, tropical forest: a coconut, lime and verbena fragrance oil with a dollop of lemongrass essential oil to add a citrus crispness.  The recipe was extremely simple: coconut oil and olive oil, which should produce a creamy and moisturizing soap with decent lathering and bubbles.

The mixing went fairly well; the comfrey leaf was put into the base batter, and then split into three.  The nettle leaf and green clay were mixed into the other two measuring cups, all stick-mixered  into a light to medium trace, and then the nettle and clay colors were poured from a height into the base batter at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions. One and a half circular sweeps of a spatula swirled the mix, and then it was poured into the Pringles can. We wrapped it up in some towels.  And then we waited, tended the Kid, made herb tea, pitted cherries, and drank white wine.

“Rainforest.”

Mom had to leave before I could unpeel the can and take a look at what we’d made.  It had produced a tiny volcano at the top (this is the second time I’ve seen that phenomenon in a Pringles can), but otherwise seemed hale and hearty.  Today I opened and cut it.  It is a firm, sturdy little beast — still a little soft, but that’s to be expected — and it cut like a dream with the Unbelievably Useful Husband’s handcrafted device. I was delighted and even dumbfounded by the herbal colors, and couldn’t help but add a leaf soap stamp and paint on a little mica.  To me, it does reflect the rainforest; the colors shift like the light in the canopy leaves, and the fragrance is gentle, earthy, fresh and relaxing. And while it might darken, I’m going to be working more with herbal and spice colorants now.  Turmeric? Paprika? Sandalwood? Dandelion? Have at you!